Poll: What’s your preferred number of times to teach a particular course?

I recently had a conversation with someone who said he thinks the second year of a course is the best year and that, after three years, he wants to move on. But I’ve also had conversations with others who would be happy to teach the same course for eternity. And I know still others who initially wanted to teach the same course over and over and over, but who now prefer to switch more often.

Part of why I’ve been having these conversations is I’ve been thinking lately about how long I want to teach Introductory Biology, even though I’m not sure how much of an option I have in terms of how long I will teach it for – I don’t think I’d be forced to if I said I absolutely didn’t want to do it, but there is definitely pressure to stay in it. But, for reasons I’ll explain more below, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how many times is the “right” number of times to teach a course and whether that number changes over the course of one’s career.

So, let’s start out with a poll. And, to be clear: I recognize that there are often things that take us away from what we’d prefer, and that, for some, some of these questions might feel like imagining what you’d do with an extra million dollars. (Yes, I sometimes wonder about that, too.)

To give more about my personal experiences and thinking on this:

A common piece of advice given to new faculty is to teach the same courses repeatedly, in order to cut down on prep time – I’ve even given it myself! But for a variety of reasons (mainly: department teaching needs, moving to a new university, and course reductions related to having children), my pre-tenure teaching did not follow this advice – there was only a single course that I taught twice while pre-tenure, which is not exactly an optimal strategy!

Since arriving at Michigan, my main teaching has been in Intro Bio. I taught in the old, content-heavy format in my first semester here, and have now taught the overhauled course three times. I’ll be on sabbatical next year, but have signed on to teach Intro Bio again in Fall 2019.

I feel very uncertain about what to do after that. Part of this is because, while the subsequent semesters haven’t been quite as stressful as that first semester where we overhauled things, I still find it a very stressful course to teach. (I might write a post some time on the problem we’ve created by making the course demonstrably better for student learning but also, in my opinion, not particularly sustainable for the faculty teaching it.) But part of it is also because other things are starting to seem really appealing to me. I would love to teach an upper level undergraduate course on the ecology and evolution of infectious diseases. I taught a discussion-based course on this at Georgia Tech, and it was my favorite course of all the ones I’ve taught; I can imagine teaching a larger version of this course here at Michigan. Reading Mark Hunter’s monograph keeps reminding me of all the really cool ecology stuff that I don’t get to cover in Intro Bio, making me want to teach ecology again. (I taught General Ecology twice at Georgia Tech but haven’t taught it at Michigan. I’ve been surprised to realize lately that I really kind of miss teaching it!) And there’s been some discussion about changing some more of the Intro Bio labs at Michigan, and the idea of teaching an ecology-themed Intro Bio lab sounds really fun to me. But, as I said at the beginning, I’m also not sure how much flexibility I’ll have. Intro Bio is a huge teaching need in the department, and it’s a challenging course to fill. So, I suspect my department will want me to keep teaching it for longer.

All of which is to say: I’ve been thinking a lot about what is the “right” number of times to teach a particular course. I’m sure there’s variation with the particular course and circumstances and with personality. I’m really interested in hearing more thoughts in the comments about the factors that go into determining your preferences for how many times you’d like to teach the same course and what keeps you from doing so!

14 thoughts on “Poll: What’s your preferred number of times to teach a particular course?

  1. Early-carreer-researcher-and-teacher here o/

    I’m entering my fourth year as a postdoc (it’s a Brazilian postdoc program which may last up to five years), and I’ve taught five graduate-level courses during this time*. I taught a population ecology course three times, and I find that by the second year it was good already. Conversely, I’m teaching basic statistics for the third time this year and I might have finally found a way to approach this subject – but maybe not, I’ll find out in April. So I think it depends a lot; But I intend to give my courses on statistics for as long as I can, so that I can become really good at it. Teaching statistics is hard!

    So, in my opinion, the ideal number of times to teach a course depends much on the challenges it imposes. For me, teaching stats is hard, there’s a lot to teach, and giving a course for many years may be necessary to find a good way to give it. For a subject that’s simpler to teach, I would find it boring to give the same course over and over again with little or no changes to it.

    *In case anyone’s curious: Population ecology, Basic statistics, Monte Carlo statistics and programming in R, Model selection, and Telemetry and movement ecology.

  2. I found the anecdote about peaking in the second year interesting. Of the two courses I designed myself, I felt like things got progressively better for about four years, at which point they felt like they’d reached a great “place” for students and teacher alike. For particular elements of a course, you have to wait a year before trying something different, so it takes time to get the bits where you want them. One course I stopped teaching after five years, and the other I’m at about five now, so I can only say that for myself five years would be a bare minimum for my preferred number of times to teach a course. It’s impossible to predict the future, but at this point I can’t imagine feeling like it would be a good idea for me or for the students to switch anytime soon (someone else teach my course, me teach something else), but I guess I’ll find out…

    • Part of what was interesting to me was it was presented as if this were a universally accepted truth. His view was Year 1 = glitches due to things being new, Year 2 = sweet spot, Year 3 = stale.

      • Hah – My experience is more like Mark’s, or even more delayed. I wonder if this depends on how one teaches? If one teaches straight from a textbook, then sure, it would take little time to “master” it and it would get stale pretty quickly. My courses are very personal – even my intro biology classes. These never get stale. The bigger issue is that textbooks become less and less relevant (again, even for the introductory classes) so it’s hard to find good resources at the level of the students. Wikipedia is a great resource but for many things its actually too detailed and has no boundary (I should say that Wikipedia quality has suffered over the last 5 or more years, perhaps because faculty are assigning wikipedia projects to students. Its pretty apparent when something is written by an undergraduate with no expertise in an area compared to someone with expertise)

    • I haven’t experienced just one peak. More of a damped oscillation. For one course I am thinking of, I also found my 2nd year to be better than my 3rd – I was tempted to take things for granted by my 3rd year. But then years 4 and 5 I was so comfortable I started innovating again and I think were better again.

      • This reminds me that I initially found that, in the second year that I taught an example, I didn’t do as well because I couldn’t remember as well exactly what it was that I’d wanted to highlight about the example, nor could I remember all the contextualizing information from the rest of the paper. So, now I write myself really extensive notes in the “notes” section of powerpoint. This is also important because other people also teach from the materials I develop, so it cuts down on a lot of background research for them if I have the key info right there in the notes section.

  3. I have taught first-year biology 6 times (sometimes for science majors, sometimes non-science majors) and I have had to modify my lectures to account for 5 DIFFERENT versions of the Pearson textbook (not just different editions, either). Such a waste of my time. I was teaching on contract so I didn’t set the textbooks, just had to go with whatever various departments choose.

  4. It probably says something bad about me as a teacher that I think I do the best job the first or second time I teach a course. I just don’t put enough effort into revising my prep. I don’t feel like I have the time, but really that’s just another way of saying that I prioritize other things. So it’d probably be better for the students if taught certain courses less often, so that I was forced to do new prep or freshen up old prep.

    In my own defense, one of the “other things” I need to prioritize over new prep these days is “all the ongoing work I need to do to keep our flipped, team-based intro biostats course running.” Like Meghan, I too am thinking of writing a post on the long term unsustainability of flipped, active learning-based classes for the faculty who teach them. Although I recognize that there are many different ways to do active learning, some of which may be more sustainable for faculty than the way we do it in intro biostats. I know Small Pond Science has some old posts on “active learning for lazy faculty” (or something like that).

    • I am glad you raised that point. I was just pondering that probably teaching a course for too long will lead to a feeling of “I have done this before, I know it all” which I personally find extremely dangerous as things usually change: new science, different students etc.
      I have taken a lot of classes on how to teach and there is new ideas and progress there all the time which you are bound to miss if you get complacent.
      That being said, it sound like you do an awesome job teaching trying to actually figure out what is best for your students and helping them to learn. So, I wouldn’t worry too much 🙂

  5. I’m finding that the number of times I want to teach a class depends on the control I have over the material. For courses where I have total control (ie I design and teach lecture and lab, do all prep, course is not a pre-req for anything), I’ll be much happier teaching them for longer – because I can change things around as much as I want to both make it better for the students’ learning and keep myself from getting bored. I also think how frequently I teach something matters – teaching something 3 times, but once every two years, is very different than doing it every semester.

  6. Somewhat related to all of this: When I was new at UW-Bothell (my previous school), my chair said to me (unsolicited, as I recall), “You know, I think that the FIFTH time I teach a course, I really nail it.” I think he was partly kidding, but partly very serious. To me, it was a really wonderful thing for him to say and for me to hear. The message that I inferred was, “We know you won’t get everything right the first or second time. Keep trying to make things better and you’ll eventually get there.” UWB is a teaching-intensive school where “taking time away from research” is less of a dilemma, but I still thought it set a very nice tone.

  7. “I might write a post some time on the problem we’ve created by making the course demonstrably better for student learning but also, in my opinion, not particularly sustainable for the faculty teaching it.”

    I would be really interested in that post!

  8. Both as a graduate student and as a new faculty member at a teaching university I had to teach the same lab 4 days in a row (with ~30 min of lecture prep to get it rolling). My impressions were that it was most exciting for me the first time (seat of the pants flying), but that students benefited from getting me on day 2 (smoother, no egregious mistakes). Day 3 and 4 were smooth and error free, but not as exciting for me or the students.

  9. Pingback: Results of poll on preferred number of times to teach a course | Dynamic Ecology

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